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- Gonzaga's Theatre
di Gottardo Gonzaga (1751 - 1831), the great European theatrical
designer of the 18th and 19th centuries, saw himself as an unfulfilled
architect. He believed that his artistic destiny had been destroyed,
his true talent never revealed. But if he preferred architecture,
why did he align himself with the theatre? Its unlikely that
he was influenced by his father, who was a modest professional
designer. Gonzaga even admitted that his father had little authority
Gonzaga was irresistibly attracted
to the theatre, but thought about acting, not designing. However,
after meeting stage designer Carlo Galli Bibiena, his fate was
decided. Gonzaga recalled that his association with the theatre
was born in an innate fearlessness. «Because of my zeal,»
he said, «I could have become a hero in chivalric times.
Since I lived in the century where theatrical heroes were endowed
with fame, the stage seemed the only place to achieve brilliant
feats.» For Gonzaga's predecessors,
the theatre was that ideal sphere where fantasy became a reality.
Gonzaga was very different; he was a rational man influenced
by the Age of Enlightenment. He studied nature, wrote tracts,
and considered the work of contemporary theatrical designers
useless and even disgraceful. He revised and updated the existing
rules of theatre design, affirming that artists must learn to
represent and reproduce real objects on the stage truthfully.
Gonzaga's success was tied to the
achievement of realism in his work. In the 1780's, he drew on
a curtain at La Scala a picture of the theater's facade. Thus,
the spectators were twice shown the building they gathered. For
the Milanese in attendance, this realistic facade (like all of
Gonzaga's scenery) seemed even more magical than the palaces
that Bibiena painted. Still, this was nothing more than a new
take on an old method of optical illusion beloved in Baroque
in an era in which distinction was achieved through the radical
aesthetic interpretation of traditional schemes and principles.
Indeed, the 19th century was , in this way, unlike the 20th century,
which demanded total novelty and a complete renewal of the artistic
process from motifs to technique. Gonzaga's famous contemporary,
Charles Louis Didelot, also worked amidst the 19th century climate
of reinvention. Didelot often employed ancient myths, immersing
himself in 17th and 18th century ballets in order to create a
new «poetry» on the basis of this archaic material.
Gonzaga possessed the same type
of genius. His creations incorporated four artistic epoch: Baroque,
Classicism, Sentimentalism and Romanticism. Rarely could Gonzaga's
work be ascribed to any one particular style; rather, they were
all intertwined. But like Didelot, Gonzaga was not eclectic.
He was the master of a complete artistic consciousness and viewed
the world in its totality. Because of this, Gonzaga's art is
easily differentiated from that of his pupils and his contemporaries.
Understanding of his grandiose
and mysterious art is derived through surviving sketches and
graphic designs. With rare exceptions, these are not dated or
given attribution. Its also difficult to distinguish between
production sketches and simple flights of fantasy, or even between
sketch for a backdrop and one for curtain. Nonetheless, Gonzaga
described his thoughts about the theatre and painting in several
documents. While his views on the relationship of scenery to
the production were not offered, he did discuss the need for
conformity between the audio and visual aspects of a work. The
visual aspects included both scenery and costumes. The audio
aspects included not only music and intonation, but also the
content of the spoken text, since all of this was heard by the
audience. Gonzaga desired to unify these elements in each production.
Gonzaga and Didelot, each with
uncommon talent, lived and worked at the same time. Both found
themselves in Russia and both reigned on the St.Petersburg stage.
Both meditated on the fate of the theatre. But despite their
similarities, their paths crossed infrequently - they even ignored
each other, choosing less interesting people as helpers. Scenery
for Didelot was designed by Corsini, Martynov, Kondratiev, Canoppi
- but never by Gonzaga. For his part, Gonzaga worked with the
commonplace choreographer Le Pique. A. Movshenson attributes
this absence of collaboration to a quarrel which occurred in
1802, following Didelot's arrival in St. Petersburg. While this
is plausible, it is unfortunate that two men of genius could
not overcome their argumentative natures to work together.
called Didelot «one of the first stage directors».
It can even be said that Didelot was one of the first to realize
Noverre's dream about «the close cooperation between the
choreographer, the librettist, the musician, and the painter».
Gonzaga, however, cherished the role of this type of director
for himself. He, too, attempted to link together the components
of a theatrical production. Though both of them strove for unified
whole, in practice each saw himself at the head of it. Neither
wanted to relinquish the director's chair to anyone else.
Moreover, despite his tracts and
treatises, Gonzaga's overpowering decor usually clashed with
the production. The artist himself recognized this, writing about
his first production at La Scala: «The audience burst into
applause, which was repeated many times, so that during the entire
First Act no one paid any attention to the other components of
the performance». Sila Sandunov confirmed this: «
The famous stage designer Gonzaga ...amazed the entire city with
his exuberant. The first time the public saw his painted scenery
they forgot about the production being presented. He made everyone
admire his brush, talent and skill».
Interestingly, Didelot's work also
pushed the limits of theatrical convention. Bold, quarrelsome
and brilliant, Didelot meddled passionately in all aspects of
the production. As the inventors of on-stage aerial flight, Didelot,
of course, took charge of the stage machinery, fighting with
the technicians. Being a reformer of ballet costumes, he gave
advice to the costume designers. His quarrel with Gonzaga, mentioned
by Movshenson, arose from an incident in which Didelot rejected
one of the painter's proposals, a drawing of a dragon for a ballet.
Impudently, Didelot proceeded to make his own sketch on the same
page. The choreographer could not endure competition from an
Furthermore, at Arkhangelskoye
there were performances consisting only of the presentation of
stage scenery, one view following another. Clearly, too much
dramatic emphasis was placed on Gonzaga's scenery for it to be
used as a background for Didelot's ballets. Gonzaga's sets were
in themselves full theater productions, exceeding their needed
theatrical power and forcing spectators to hold their breath
while absorbing the technical feats. Gonzaga was the last heir
to the centuries-old tradition- born in ancient Rome and popularized
by Servandoni - of illusionistic stage painting.
- by Inna Sklyarevskaya
- This article first appeared in «Sovietsky
Balet», issue No.5, 1989